Archives For Science

Baby In UteroScience can do many things. Since the scientific revolution, we increasingly get the feeling that science can do anything it sets its mind—or calibrates its microscopes—to do. But, of course, that’s not true. There are things that science simply cannot do. One of those things is settle the abortion debate.

The abortion debate hinges on one’s definition of personhood. Contrary to the rhetoric employed, not a single person on either side of the debate believes in murdering innocent persons.

On the pro-choice side, advocates believe that a woman has a right to make her own decisions about her body. And that phrase is key: her body. They believe that the fetus is an extension of the woman’s body. It’s her egg, and it’s growing and developing, but it’s still a part of her body. At some point, that egg will become a person, but prior to that point, it remains a part of the woman’s body and she can choose to have it removed if she wants to. The moment at which a fetus becomes a person is disputed even within the pro-choice camp, but the idea is the same regardless of the timing of personhood.

On the pro-life side, advocates believe that a fetus is a person. Sure, a woman can do with her body what she wants,[1] but the fetus is not her body. It’s a human being. The person is small and inside of her body, to be sure, but that doesn’t entitle the woman to take a human life.

All of this comes down to when exactly a fetus becomes a person. It seems clear that an egg by itself is not a person. It also seems clear that a solitary sperm is not a person. But as soon as these two meet, the debate begins. Many pro-lifers (myself included) believe that personhood begins with fertilization. Other people believe that personhood begins when the fetus is implanted. Or when the heart begins to beat or the brain waves become detectable. Or during a certain trimester. Or at birth. Or even at some point after birth. There are even those who would deny personhood to full grown adults if they have some type of handicap.

The point is, science can tell us exactly what is going on with the growth of the fetus. It can tell us what is going on when fertilization or implantation happen. It can detect and describe the heartbeat and the brain waves.

But science cannot tell us when that fetus becomes a person. Why? Because that is a matter of definition. It is a philosophical question. It is a religious question. We can and should appeal to science in informing our definition of personhood, but we need to understand that this question will not be answered through the scientific method.

And this means that the abortion debate can only be settled at the level of worldview, personal philosophy, and religious beliefs. Christians appeal to the Bible to show that personhood goes all the way back to the womb—even before that, actually. But without divine revelation to guide them, it seems likely that our society will debate the moment of personhood forever.

This does not make the abortion issue futile. Every just cause is worth fighting for. But it does mean that our efforts must be aimed at worldview. Science is a good thing, and it may be useful in illustrating the humanity of even the smallest persons. But we need to recognize that the battle is for the definition of personhood and focus our energies there.


[1] We need to be careful about this terminology, however, because none of us is completely entitled to “do with our bodies what we want.” We are forbidden by law from putting certain types of drugs into them, for example. We’re also not allowed to sell them for sex. No matter which side of the debate we are on, we have to be clear that a person’s “right to choose” always has limitations.

What Science Can’t Do

Mark Beuving —  January 23, 2012 — 6 Comments

Science is all-powerful. There is nothing it can’t explore, nothing it can’t explain, no problem that it can’t solve. At least, this is what the Western world has believed since the Scientific Revolution. But is it true?

Though science and religion are constantly billed as opponents, they actually can, should, and often do work hand in hand. In fact, modern science began as Christians (along with non-Christians working within the consensus of the Christian worldview) began to explore the world that God had made, believing that since the Creator was rational and orderly, the universe could be explored and understood. Science can help us understand the world that God made, and thus understand more about the amazing mind of God. When each discipline is properly understood and interpreted, science and religion work together for the glory of God.

Yet science has become something of an idol in our day. Science is seen as infallible. Whatever science says goes. This is problematic because science is often used in ways that are, well, unscientific.

I want to point out three things that science can’t do and draw out some of the implications of this.

Science can’t…

  1. Tell us the purpose of anything.
  2. Give us the meaning of life.
  3. Provide us with moral standards.

Science can tell us more than we ever wanted to know about human anatomy, it can describe what makes up the heart and the brain and how these fascinating organs function, but it can not tell us the purpose of a person. To describe the purpose of something implies a knowledge of the reason it was made the way it was. Science can tell us a lot about the way a human being works, but it cannot tell us the intent behind the design of a human being. (It attempts to do this using evolutionary theory, but a nonrational force such as “natural selection” (which isn’t really a force at all), can’t have  a purpose behind anything it does).

Similarly, science can’t tell us the meaning of life. It can describe and categorize life and our experience with the world, but it cannot explain what it all means. People try to use science to tell us that the world is an accident, that life has no meaning, but these types of determinations are outside of the jurisdiction of science. These are metaphysical questions, not scientific questions.

Finally, science cannot give us morals. Morality is all about what a person should do. Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be. Science is a discipline of description, not prescription. Thus a scientist can tell us how people behave, but he or she cannot justifiably tell another human being that one attitude or action is wrong or that another is right.

Yet people often try to use science to tell us these things. When they do this, they are using science as a smokescreen to make metaphysical statements. This is simply unfair. Science is helpful when used properly, but when it is used to make determinations that are beyond its scope, it becomes a means of control.

So let’s continue to pursue science, but let’s be cautious of “scientific” statements that go beyond the realm of science. Science can help us to understand the world we live in and to solve some of the problems we face (though we have to acknowledge that science is constantly causing new problems), but only the Maker can tell us the meaning of the world He created. Only God can tell us how we should behave. Only He can give us the purpose of our existence.

Of course, we have always known this to be true. But when enough authoritative voices tell us that we can only believe that which can be scientifically proven (a statement, by the way, which cannot be scientifically proven), we begin to doubt the obvious. And claiming to be wise, we become fools.